FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Much has been made about the New England Revolution’s reinvigorated offense, and deservedly so after recently adding a new Designated Player at forward in Gustavo Bou and the sudden improvement in form of virtually all of the Revs’ attacking players.
Just as key to New England’s MLS-best, 11-game unbeaten streak, though, has been a similar turnaround by a defensive group that was in shambles by the end of former coach Brad Friedel’s tenure, conceding 18 goals during the four-game losing streak that ultimately cost Friedel his job back in May.
During the Revolution’s unbeaten run, they have allowed just 0.82 goals per game, culminating in a 261-minute shutout streak that ended in the 77th minute of Saturday’s 4-1 win over Orlando City, as Tesho Akindele roofed it from inside the six-yard box with the Revs already up by four goals.
“We did concede, so that came to an end tonight,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “That was pretty unfortunate, but our commitment to defending has just been excellent over the past three to four games.”
The goal was far from egregious, as Akindele eluded Juan Agudelo – traditionally a forward or winger, but who has played in a midfield role under new coach Bruce Arena – to redirect Dom Dwyer’s centering pass.
“We were just sitting too deep. We scored the fourth and we literally took our foot off the gas,” said Turner, who made seven saves to match a career-high that he set in the previous week’s 2-0 road win over FC Cincinnati.
After falling out of Friedel’s favor last September, the 25-year-old Turner has been a beneficiary of New England’s hot streak, regaining the confidence and form he displayed during a starring run at the beginning of the 2018 season.
Another difference of late is that Friedel’s extreme high-press system often left the Revolution exposed on counterattacks, with defenders out of position and many times the goalie or center back out on an island.
“Our active defending – seeing counters off before they’re dangerous… that’s something killed us a lot earlier in the season,” Turner said.
Under Arena’s system, many of Turner’s saves have been more reasonable, resulting in him turning back 30 out of opponents’ 37 shots on goal during the Revs’ unbeaten streak for a scintillating 81% save percentage.
Fullbacks Edgar Castillo and Brandon Bye are still offensive-minded players, they haven’t left the flanks quite as exposed the last couple months.
Meanwhile, the Steady Eddie of the back line, Andrew Farrell, has shown that he is still an adept center back, despite playing the last several seasons at right back. Originally an emergency fill-in, Farrell has stuck in his new role, although if center back Michael Mancienne can return to health before the end of the season, it might make sense to shift Farrell back outside.
Center back Antonio Delamea – the Revolution’s 2017 Team MVP and Defender of the Year – has recently gotten healthy again and is taking advantage of his second chance under Arena.
The result of all that has been an 11-game run in which New England has only given up multiple goals once – a 2-2 draw against D.C. United in which Wilfried Zahibo was ejected in the 63rd minute after a second yellow card.
The combination of a much-improved offense and defense has been a +14 goal differential during the unbeaten streak. As the Revs (9-8-6) have risen into seventh place in the Eastern Conference, they’ve also shrunk their overall goal differential to a much more manageable -5, should they end up in a tight race for a playoff spot or a better seeding.
While the recent shutout streak might have some element of fool’s gold – it came against Vancouver, Cincinnati and Orlando City – the defensive personnel will get a true test the next three weeks at home against LAFC and then on the road versus the Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls.
“We got some tough games coming up,” Turner said. “We need to make sure we take care of business here at home and that’s first and foremost.”